Supply and DemandPrior to the tour, I had only rarely seen oil-based lube in shops. Given its reputation for not playing well with latex condoms and vaginas and working from the assumption that the shops I was visiting were frequented by women, this made sense to me. However, upon arriving in Chicago I noticed that all the stores were carrying it. When I asked about it, I was told that Chicago, home of the Leather Archives and Museum, is home to a large leather and gay communities. Because oil-based lube is fabulous for anal play with toys or non-latex condoms, its popularity in the area suddenly made much more sense. (Learn more about lubricant in The Ins and Outs of Sexual Lubricants.)
Taste and DistasteWhen I visited a shop in Wisconsin, it had several gorgeous wooden and ceramic toys on clearance for 50 percent off. The owner told me that unique materials are a hard sell, and she explained that customers were leery of items that they hadn’t seen before and maybe didn’t understand - even with education. They really didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something they viewed as "risky." As a result, a toy that was considered a high-end, locked-in-a-case staple in Boston could be found in the clearance bin in Madison.
Which leads us to ...
The Price People Will PayIn some cities, $20 buys you a round of drinks while in others it barely covers two beers. There’s a similar phenomenon with sex toys, except that in this case, shop owners need to cover their own costs and may also be limited by minimum price points set by product manufacturers. This results in some brands pricing themselves out of certain markets. I started the tour in Boston, where one shop I visited had an entire wall devoted to fancy, high-end vibrators, many of which were produced by a brand that I realized I hadn’t seen since I'd left the East Coast. They just didn’t exist in the Midwest. As a gentleman I met in Chicago said, "It’s like a sense of reserve. Even when we’re being kinky." (Get some tips on how to choose a high-quality vibe in Should I Buy That Sex Toy? Consult This Handy Flow Chart.)
Distribution IssuesAnother thing that determines what's sold at the sex shops in your area has to do with what's available to those shops. Most sex shops are not ordering their products from every company they stock, but are instead going through distributors. This can be problematic because, as Metis Black, president of Tantus, told me, "distributors really have one person who is the buyer, and this person may or may not play with toys." This leaves the potential for a company’s full catalog of offerings to be hidden from a shop owner. Black tells a great story of Tantus’ experience:
"For the first few years of distribution, one Midwest distributor only ordered purple dildos from us. We advertised in all the industry magazines showing our vivid color spectrum. Finally, at one International Lingerie Show, ... the distributor's customers kept coming up to me and asking what other distributors carried our line because they wanted more color options. I had a heart-to-heart with the sales manager and she picked up probably three times the SKUs."
So, if you were buying Tantus in the Midwest during that time, you were buying it in purple because that was what was being offered to you. These days, most shops use multiple distributors to avoid situations like this.
Take Your Own Sex Shop TourThe sex shops you spot on the road may be very different from the ones at home. So stop, check them out, and learn a bit more about the place you’re visiting. It’s like taking a city’s sexual temperature! You might learn more than you think - and perhaps find some tempting new products in the process.
Want a road map to sex shop adventure? Check out my site for the Internet’s most comprehensive listing of North America’s sex-positive sex shops, The Superhero Sex Shops!